• Ten keys to good web communication
- The time factor
- Information structure and ‘readership level’
- Editorial quality
- Information and metadata
1. The time factor
The printed word is fixed – this is an advantage in that your message cannot be distorted, and a weakness as it cannot easily be updated. A web page can be ephemeral – here today and gone tomorrow. So, while people do not expect a printed item to change, they expect a website to be up to date on the day they consult it. A website editor must therefore consider the development and publication of the site as a long-term exercise that is never ending.
The life of the site consists of an initial ‘publication’ and regular updates – publishing new contents, archiving out-of-date contents, adding new functions, and improving the presentation. Technically, it will be necessary to use the contents in different contexts, not all of which can be identified at the start. So database technologies should be used where possible, allowing contents to be exported in different forms without expensive and complicated processing.
At the concept stage, identify sections which will remain stable over time and contents that need updating regularly
Establish an update strategy – who does what, when and how often
Unlike paper products that are generally read in a linear manner from the first page to the last, a classical website is made up of a series of pages interconnected using hyperlinks. These hyperlinks are rather like bookmarks, allowing readers to move from one place on a page to anywhere else on the site – or the Web itself.
This extremely simple but powerful concept has considerable influence on how sites are read – it is essential to take into account that a reader can arrive at page without having seen any ‘preceding’ material. This means that each page on a website has to be considered by its author as an autonomous element, with self-supporting information, that can be understood without any context or introduction.
To ensure pages function on the web, check that:
Pages are short. Printed out, they should be no longer than two A4 sheets
Try to mix all the pages of a website and read them in any arbitrary order. The information should still be understandable.
The number of links in the text – or separate box – should be reasonable. More than five links on a page can cause a reader not to finish the item
3. Information structure and ‘readership level’
It is not possible to know all the readers who might visit your site. They may be looking for very general information, detailed reports or technical data – and with different levels of understanding of your activity. The web makes it possible to address all these different audiences in an extremely simple and practical manner by exploiting the ‘readership level’.
Most web tree structures are pyramidal, with the home page representing the summit of the pyramid. The home page leads to X level-2 pages, each of which leads to Y level-3 pages, and so on. One of the secrets of a good website is to exploit this information structure to allow several readership levels: the most accessible pages should provide general information, while more ‘distant’ pages provide ever more detail for the more motivated reader.
List all the questions your website is intended to answer and prioritise them
Provide responses to essential questions in the first two levels of the website
Try to limit to three the overall number of clicks required to reach essential information – more detailed information can be put deeper in the site
Try to find the best balance between width and depth on the site. Ideally, one page should provide access to a maximum of 12 subordinate pages. There is no practical limit to the overall depth of the site – but the more it can be reduced, the more effective it will be
The complexity of a website is not a problem as long as it is easy to ‘navigate’ – that is to move from section or page to another. An effective navigation protocol fulfils a double function: allowing readers to know exactly where they are in the site structure at any time, and making it possible to move easily and quickly with a limited number of clicks.
At the same time, it is essential to remember that the level of computer expertise of the great majority of web users is extremely limited. If the navigation system is too complex, they may be unable to understand how to move around a site. Finally, you should not overestimate the manual dexterity of your website visitors: areas of micro-manipulation should be avoided. Navigation areas should be obvious, and immediately comprehensible.
Remember also that content that cannot be seen simply does not exist as far as visitors are concerned. It is necessary therefore to show as much as possible of the richness of a site, without making page reading too complicated.
Call on the services of a professional web or graphic interface designer to develop an effective navigation module based on the information structure of your site
Get users without specific knowledge of the web to test the navigation system
Make sure that visitors know where they are on the site at all times; check also that it is easy to move from one page or section to another
If possible, perform the same test with people of reduced dexterity or poor eyesight to determine whether the system poses significant difficulties for such users
Finally, remember that the site structure will change with time: if you have selected a horizontal navigation bar, consider in advance how it will look when the number of buttons doubles
The HTML format used to code web pages makes it possible to mix text and multimedia elements such as photographs, graphics, plans, animations, sound and video. Well chosen and well designed, such elements are extremely useful in making complex ideas understandable. In addition to their communications value, they can also make pages more agreeable to read.
Therefore, from the conception stage, website editors should think about the best way to exploit the multimedia elements available and to create new elements to make the information clearer, more relevant and easier to read.
Multimedia elements can slow the display of a web page. And some elements – such as video – require small ‘plug-in’ programs that must be available on the user’s computer. Therefore, ensure that:
Contents are still readable and understandable even if the multimedia elements are not displayed
Multimedia elements are not too ‘heavy’, affecting performance – use, for example, a thumbnail image that can be linked to a bigger picture
Only standard multimedia formats that can be handled by most computers are used
Links to download sites for necessary plug-ins are included